British epidemiologist Richard Wilkinson offers a compelling reason why countries like Canada should strive to bridge the gap between rich and poor.
According to the coauthor of the celebrated 2009 book The Spirit Level: Why More Equal Societies Almost Always Do Better, people live longer, healthier, and happier lives in more egalitarian societies.
“It’s the gap that matters,” Wilkinson told the audience at a well-attended forum held December 14 at the Carnegie Community Centre in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside.
The cofounder of the Equality Trust, a U.K.–based advocacy group, also stated that nations with less pronounced income stratification fare better in many health and social measures. In addition to residents having longer life expectancies and better physical and mental well-being, these societies have fewer social problems such as high infant mortality rates, teenage births, alcohol and drug addiction, homicides, and high rates of imprisonment.
A chart in Wilkinson’s book shows that the U.S. has the greatest income inequality as well as the worst index of health and social problems among 21 developed countries. Japan has the best record; Canada comes 12th.
In an interview before he delivered his talk, Wilkinson said that although inequality affects the poor more than the rich, “even the better-off do better in more equal societies”.
“They might live a little bit longer, their children will do better in school, they’ll be less likely to be victims of violence,” Wilkinson told the Georgia Straight. “Why it is is because inequality increases status competition, status insecurity, and it’s a sort of competition of each against all, whereas in a more equal society, there’s more reciprocity and cooperation. Involvement in community life is stronger in more equal societies. People trust each other more.”
Wilkinson said that although Canada isn’t doing as poorly as some, “it could do better if it had greater equality.”
But there’s one cause of alarm for Wilkinson: “I believe Canada is getting more unequal particularly fast,” he said.
There is plenty of evidence showing the disparity between the country’s rich and poor. A study released on December 1 by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives showed that the elite are “breaking new frontiers in income inequality”.
“Canada’s richest 1%—the 246,000 privileged few whose average income is $405,000—took almost a third (32%) of all growth in incomes in the fastest growing decade in this generation, 1997 to 2007,” according to the study authored by economist Armine Yalnizyan.
According to The Rise of Canada’s Richest 1%, incomes are getting concentrated in the hands of the wealthy. “The richest 1% has seen its share of total income double, the richest 0.1% has seen its share almost triple, and the richest 0.01% has seen its share more than quintuple since the late 1970s,” the study states.
Statistics Canada figures released on June 17 showed that in 2008, the top 20 percent of people with the highest family after-tax income had, on average, 5.4 times the family after-tax income as those in the lowest 20 percent.
In May 2007, the federal statistics agency made public a research paper that demonstrated how inequality in after-tax family income has increased.
Between 1989 and 2004, average after-tax family income in the top 10 percent of families rose by 24 percent and fell by eight percent in the bottom 10 percent of earners, according to Income Inequality and Redistribution in Canada: 1976 to 2004.
Antipoverty activist Jean Swanson, who introduced Wilkinson to the audience, said in an interview after the forum that inaction by governments to reduce inequality is akin to a death sentence.
“By maintaining inequality, the government is depriving especially people who are poor of five or 10 years of life,” Swanson told the Straight. “It’s like lining them up in a firing squad.”